Intentional Walk Decline: Let MLB Teams Do the Scouting

Fiddle Farts. I’ve been diving deep into my to-do list hoping for a study to verify nothing. This study was not a quick-and-easy one. I’m surprised how much can be gleaned from a small drop in a hitter’s intentional base-on-balls (IBB).

When examining intentional walks, it’s not like canoeing across a calm flat lake with no dangers. Instead, it’s more of a white water rafting with no rest or the end in sight.

Two types of hitters normally see a drop in intentional walks, great hitters on the decline and the eighth hitter in National League parks. Of the 776 intentional walks last season, 410 came from the third (104), fourth (123), and eighth (183) spots in the lineup. It’s a player pool of just the once best and now worst hitters in the league.

Another factor to consider is that intentional walks have been on a steady decline with last season having the lowest total since 1961.

The Astros went as far as to not intentionally walk a single batter last season.

Because of the recent drop, I decided to only focus on the last five seasons to hopefully mimic next season. And that led to another problem, the league-wide OPS has increased from .700 in 2014 to .758 last year. It’s tough to make safe predictions in an ever-changing environment.

And there is the non-intentional, intentional walk as I describe in a previous article.

When pitchers weren’t directly intentionally walking him, they were pitching around him. They were forcing him to either swing at junk outside or take a walk. A while back, I found for every two intentional walks, there is probably one non-intentional, intentional walk (Adjusted NIBB%) inflating a player’s walk rate.

These walks would be a factor since projections use the inflate higher walk rates and expect some regression back to those higher values.

On top of all the external factors, I decided to create a convoluted way of determining the change in walks. After going through various weighting systems, I settled on:

  • 50% of the drop from the previous season
  • 25% of the drop from two seasons ago
  • 25% of the drop from the first to the second half

The goal was to include some long and short term trends but most of the information was from last season.

Using the players with the biggest decline, I took their next season’s Steamer projection and compared it to the actual results. On average, the actual results should have been on the high side since the projections could not have predicted the juiced ball. Few were meeting expectations. I kept adding IBB droppers and I settled on players with a drop of over 2.0.

Even as the number of intentional walks shrunk, the OPS difference remained unchanged until the 2.0 level.

OPS Change for a Drop in IBB
IBB Change Average Median
>= 3.5 drop .041 -.032
>= 2.25 and <3.5 drop -.043 -.027

The next key was to see what percentage of the overall decline was a residual of the walk rate drop or other factors in which led to opposing managers to no longer fear the batter.

Production Change for a IBB Drop
Average Values
IBB Change AVG OBP ISO BB% K%
>= 3.5 drop -.011 -.014 -.016 -0.5% 1.0%
>= 2.25 and <3.5 drop -.016 -.016 -.011 -0.2% 1.4%
Median Values
>= 3.5 drop -.007 -.011 -.016 -0.4% 0.6%
>= 2.25 and <3.5 drop -.011 -.014 -.011 -0.2% 1.0%

The decline was across all categories from strikeout rate to batting average to power. These players are seeing their production decline more than expected and fantasy owners need to take notice.

I tried was to remove out the eighth batter from the NL. Most of them fell into the “>= 2.25 and <3.5 drop” group but here are the difference in results with .740 OPS being the split point.

Stat Changes Based on Projected OPS
OPS OPS AVG OBP ISO BB% K%
> .740 OPS -.042 -.012 -.016 -.014 -0.6% 1.2%
<= .740 OPS -.043 -.017 -.014 -.011 0.2% 1.3%

While some decline from not being pitched around is evident, they still declined in other categories. It’s possible the hitter’s team has noticed the mounting struggles and that’s why they are hitting eighth. If the batter is improving, they will move off the eighth spot. All these theories will quickly become moot with the NL likely implementing a universal DH.

For reference, here are the hitters with the largest IBB declines last season.

Hitters with 2018 Decline in IBB
Name IBB Change Steam OPS Actual OPS Diff
Joey Votto -9.25 .871 .768 -.102
Jake Lamb -7.75 .768 .676 -.092
Daniel Murphy -7.50 .864 .780 -.085
Buster Posey -6.75 .790 .688 -.102
Tucker Barnhart -6.00 .695 .708 .012
Hanley Ramirez -5.25 .745 .625 -.120
Robinson Cano -5.00 .800 .736 -.065
Orlando Arcia -4.50 .685 .633 -.052
Logan Morrison -4.25 .746 .663 -.083
Giancarlo Stanton -4.25 .925 .894 -.031
Average= -.072

These hitters way underperformed. The two players who could have saved some owners some grief were Joey Votto and Daniel Murphy who were top-75 picks. Both had seen their IBB rate dropped and red flags should have been thrown to stay away.

That was a bunch of mumbo jumbo to provide some useful information, the 41 players to flag for this upcoming season.

Hitters with Decline IBB
Name 25% of 2-year change 50% of 1-year change 2H vs 1H change Total NFBC ADP
Matt Carpenter -1.00 -8.50 0.00 -9.50 458
Anthony Rizzo -2.00 -6.00 -0.75 -8.75 60
Dansby Swanson -2.00 -6.50 0.00 -8.50 235
Manny Machado 0.00 -7.50 -0.25 -7.75 58
Paul Goldschmidt -3.25 -4.50 0.00 -7.75 73
Mike Trout -0.25 -5.50 -2.00 -7.75 3
Jose Ramirez -0.50 -6.00 -0.75 -7.25 17
Kyle Schwarber 1.00 -7.50 -0.75 -7.25 126
Joey Votto -4.50 -2.00 -0.50 -7.00 286
Nick Markakis -1.75 -4.50 -0.25 -6.50 530
Ian Happ -1.25 -4.50 0.00 -5.75 251
Giancarlo Stanton -3.25 -2.50 0.00 -5.75 67
Javier Baez -3.00 -2.50 -0.25 -5.75 32
Buster Posey -3.00 -1.00 0.25 -3.75 265
Kris Bryant -1.00 -2.50 -0.25 -3.75 59
Juan Soto 0.00 -3.50 -0.25 -3.75 11
Daniel Murphy -3.25 -0.50 0.25 -3.50 272
Eric Hosmer 0.00 -3.50 0.25 -3.25 222
Brandon Crawford 0.50 -4.00 0.25 -3.25 565
Kyle Seager -1.50 -1.50 0.00 -3.00 313
Travis Shaw -0.75 -1.50 -0.75 -3.00 359
Jake Lamb -3.00 0.50 -0.25 -2.75 452
Max Muncy 0.00 -2.50 -0.25 -2.75 66
Bryce Harper 0.00 -2.50 -0.25 -2.75 20
Gregory Polanco -0.75 -2.00 0.00 -2.75 312
Carlos Correa -1.25 -1.50 0.00 -2.75 105
Mookie Betts -0.75 -1.00 -1.00 -2.75 6
Jose Altuve -0.75 -2.00 0.00 -2.75 39
Yasiel Puig -1.75 -0.50 -0.25 -2.50 201
Odubel Herrera -1.00 -1.50 0.00 -2.50 601
Matt Wieters -1.00 -1.50 0.00 -2.50 576
Mitch Moreland -1.50 -1.00 0.00 -2.50 519
Xander Bogaerts -1.00 -1.00 -0.50 -2.50 39
Trevor Story -1.00 -1.50 0.00 -2.50 11
Joey Wendle -0.25 -2.00 0.00 -2.25 560
Eduardo Escobar 0.00 -2.50 0.25 -2.25 107
Pedro Severino -0.25 -2.00 0.00 -2.25 453
Charlie Blackmon -2.00 -0.50 0.25 -2.25 49
Albert Pujols -1.00 -1.00 -0.25 -2.25 496
Jorge Alfaro 0.00 -2.50 0.25 -2.25 208
Jose Peraza -0.25 -2.00 0.00 -2.25 352

Here are some highlights I found from the table.

• A significant difference happens from -5.75 to -3.75. Those with a drop of 5.75 or more are some of the largest 2019 disappointments (Carpenter, Machado, Goldschmidt, Ramirez, Votto, and Stanton).

• The Cubs have five of the top-15 with their overall team total dropping from 67 in 2018 to just 33 last year. I’m not sure if I should just be fading all Cubs or if I’m just missing something.

On the individual level, I can understand Rizzo’s struggles with his nagging back issues. Righties don’t fear Bryant with his OPS against them being .749 in 2018 and .866 last year. While Schwarber still crushes righties, they just quit intentionally walking him. Baez and Happ got the 8th spot bump in 2017 and 2018 and have seen their walk numbers drop.

• Trout’s decline is based on his 25 IBB in 2018 being the outlier dropping down to 14. Pitchers still fear him. From 2015 to 2017, he was intentionally walked 14, 12, and 15 times so last season’s total as more in line with his career numbers.

• Like Trout, Soto was another young talent hitter seeing a huge drop. In 2018 Soto was batting 5th in the lineup with no threats in the 6th spot. Teams chose to face Michael Talyor or Ryan Zimmerman instead of Soto.

While there is a lot going on in the previous 1000 words, the biggest takeaway from the data is to let the MLB teams do the scouting. If they believe a hitter is no longer a threat, fantasy owners should also. On average, these hitters underperform their projections the next season with little rebound.

We hoped you liked reading Intentional Walk Decline: Let MLB Teams Do the Scouting by Jeff Zimmerman!

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Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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eph_unit
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eph_unit

I took a quick look at who lead the league in IBB for the 2H. Some surprising names:
Carson Kelly
Moustakas
Christian Walker
Rhys
Maikel Franco (!!?!)

Pirates Hurdles
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Member
Pirates Hurdles

Some of these would be #8 hitters in the NL